THE SUCCESS OF BAZ LUHRMAN'S ELVIS HAS TURNED ATTENTION ONCE AGAIN TO AUSTRALIA'S LONG- ESTABLISHED FILM INDUSTRY AND ITS HISTORY OF WELCOMING LARGE-SCALE INTERNATIONAL PRODUCTIONS — AS WELL AS IT'S VAST ARRAY OF VERSATILE LOCATIONS, CREW AND STUDIO FACILITIES – SOME OF WHICH PLAYED A STARRING ROLE IN THIS MOST AMERICAN OF STORIES. JOANNA STEPHENS REPORTS
AS ONE of the year’s biggest winners on the awards circuit, Elvis is very much still alive in the public consciousness. Which couldn’t please Screen Queensland more, given that the film was shot almost entirely on Australia’s Gold Coast, employed 900 Queenslanders and injected more than A$105m ($ 70m) into the local economy. But for all the noise around Baz Luhrmann’s sprawling portrait of the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis is only one in a long list of A-list international movies and series to have shot in Australia over the past four years. These overseas productions have done more than sprinkle stardust over Australia’s reputation as a world-class production destination. They also point to the competitiveness of Australia’s screen production incentives for both physical and post, digital and visual effects (PDV) work.
February saw the publication of UK-based consultancy Olsberg SPI’s Study on The Impact of Film and Television Production Incentives in Australia, commissioned last year by the Australia New Zealand Screen Association (ANZSA) and the Motion Picture Association (MPA). The report’s headline finding was that the Australian government’s suite of production incentives contributed a total of A$16.5bn in economic output over the four years ending June 2022. The Location Offset and Location Incentive generated particularly impressive results: Olsberg estimates that, for every net dollar invested in international projects, A$5.89 is created in value for the Australian economy. Moreover, 60% of below-the-line expenditure finds its way to non-screen-related businesses, such as construction, security, travel, transport, real estate, education and hospitality. This is good news for Australians, of course. But confirmation that incentives are powerful economic drivers is arguably even better news for international productions, no less than 37 of which have headed Down Under since 2018. However, while generous incentives are undoubtedly a compelling reason to film in Australia — indeed, Olsberg’s study reveals that, without the Location Offset and Location Incentive, no international projects would have opted for Australia over the last four years — Kate Marks, CEO of screen-industry public/private partnership Ausfilm, is keen to point out it’s not all about the money.
“In the last two fiscal years, we’ve seen record levels of drama production across Australia and our incentives have obviously played a key role in attracting international work,” Marks says. “But incentives can only do so much. What makes our studio and SVOD partners come to Australia, and keep coming back, is our people. Clients tell us time and again that our crews are incredible; that they’re innovative, problem-solving, fun, hard-working and passionate about what they do. So government support is great, but it’s our people — that Australian spirit — that makes us different.”
Supporting the can-do mentality of Australia’s creative talent is a world-class production infrastructure, spanning film studios, sound stages and post-production, VFX and screen-services facilities. And then there’s its embarrassment of natural riches. The country’s vast size and diverse ecosystems have gifted it a huge array of landscapes, from the desolate beauty of the outback to lush farmland, sweeping plains, snow-capped mountains and dense rainforests. There’s no shortage of urban landscapes either, whether it’s gritty industrial hinterland you’re after or a sophisticated metropolitan backdrop that could double for any great city in the world. Another reason the world’s filmmakers want to work in Australia is because “we have incredible stories to tell and a long history of telling them brilliantly on film”, Marks adds. “It’s really gratifying that all the hard work that’s gone into building our screen sector is now paying off. In an industry of peaks and troughs, we’ve seen a solid supply of work over the last few years, which is helping us to scale up, expand and attract new business.”
As the agency charged with connecting the international film community with Australia’s incentives, talent and facilities, Ausfilm can take much of the credit for ‘the last few years’ to which Marks refers. With a team on the ground in Los Angeles (“the US is our core focus...”) Ausfilm is generally the first point of contact for overseas productions looking to film in the country. “We also have solid, long-standing relationships with many of our clients, which results in a lot of repeat business,” Marks adds. She points to the Disney family, which has now returned six or seven times to Australia, most recently with Wes Ball’s Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, which was filmed at Sydney’s iconic Fox Studios, now renamed Disney Studios Australia. The list of recent and announced international features filming in Australia includes The Fall Guy, starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt; Ricky Stanicky, starring John Cena and Zac Efron; Ticket to Paradise, starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts; and the as-yet-untitled sequel to Godzilla vs Kong, with Dan Stevens attached as lead. On the TV front, Apple TV+’s Shantaram starring Charlie Hunnam, was shot extensively in Melbourne, while the first 10-part series of Nautilus — Disney+’s upcoming prequel to Jules Verne’s underwater fantasy Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea — recently wrapped at Queensland-based Village Roadshow Studios (VRS), home to the Elvis production, as well as Ticket to Paradise and the latest cinematic clash in the MonsterVerse King Kong franchise.
“Nautilus was based at VRS for over a year,” president of VRS, Lynne Benzie, says. “It was the longest project based at the studio that I can remember.” It was also a major coup for Queensland, contributing an estimated A$96m to the local economy and employing more than 1,400 Australians — 98% of the total crew — over its 274 production days. Moreover, 1,200-plus Australian vendors were engaged in the production. “The roll-on effect from big productions, whether domestic or international, has a big impact for the local economy, tourism and training,” Benzie adds.
Nautilus used VRS’ main water tank, which is the largest purpose-built facility of its kind in Australia. “Setting up water tanks is always a challenge,” Benzie says — and a look at the main tank’s vital statistics reveals why: it has a surface area of 1,200 sq m, holds seven million litres of water and takes 44 hours to fill. The next major production to set sail across the main tank was True Spirit, Netflix’s biopic of Jessica Watson, the 16-year-old Australian girl who was the youngest person to sail solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world.
VRS’ lot — the largest in the Southern Hemisphere — includes nine sound studios, three water tanks, 11 production offices, nine construction workshops, 19 wardrobe lockups and six editing suites, enabling the studio to accommodate productions of all sizes and complexities. International projects are not only important in terms of budget and kudos, but also because they can generate infrastructure and training opportunities from which domestic productions can subsequently benefit — a case in point being the main water tank, which was built for Fool’s Gold in 2006. “But Stages 7, 8 and 9 were also built due to international production requirements,” Benzie says.
And those international productions keep on coming, attracted not only by VRS’ facilities and Queenland’s generous incentives, but by the picture-perfect locations of Australia’s sunshine state. Recent visitors include Land of Bad, starring Russell Crowe and Liam Hemsworth, which wrapped on the Gold Coast late last year, as did the sequel to Godzilla vs Kong — Legendary Pictures’ third production to be made in Queensland.
The feature film Wizards! also shot in Queensland in 2022. Queensland’s spectacular locations have successfully doubled for Bali (Ticket to Paradise), Thailand (Thirteen Lives) and even Tokyo (Pacific Rim: Uprising). In addition to VRS and Screen Queensland Studios: Brisbane, which opened in 2019, Screen Queensland Studios: Cairns will be operational later this year, providing easier access to Far North Queensland’s stunning tropical locations. “Our studios are located in close proximity to some of Australia’s best beaches, bushland, rainforest/jungle and mountains, as well as an array of architectural options,” Screen Queensland CEO Courtney Gibson says. “And our enviable climate and lifestyle doesn’t hurt either...”
The Queensland Government’s Production Attraction Strategy, which Screen Queensland operates in combination with the Federal Government’s production incentives, was introduced in 2015, since when, 48 international and interstate projects have benefited from the state’s crews, locations and studios. In 2021, the Queensland Government introduced the Post, Digital and Visual Effects (PDV) Incentive which, at 15%, is the most competitive along Australia’s eastern seaboard. “In the last financial year, Screen Queensland supported a record-breaking number of international productions as a result of the PDV incentive,” Gibson says. “As well as The Infernal Machine, Foe and Yu Yu Hakusho coming to the state’s leading post-production companies, we are also seeing more end-to-end projects, such as Land of Bad, take advantage of the incentive.”
Gibson says that 2023 is shaping up to be another bumper year, kicking off with the latest in a suite of NBCUniversal/ Matchbox collaborations, Apples Never Fall, which started filming at VRS in March. The limited series, based on the best- selling book by Australian author Liane Moriaty (Nine Perfect Strangers, Big Little Lies), stars Annette Bening and Sam Neill.
Down in southeastern Australia, meanwhile, Victoria has also had a busy couple of years hosting premium international projects, including sci-fi thriller Foe, starring Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal; season two of NBC’s sci-fi hit La Brea; Michael Gracey’s biopic of Robbie Williams, Better Man; and epic adventure Shantaram, which premiered late last year on Apple TV+. Currently filming in the state is Academy Award-winning director Peter Farrelly’s new comedy Ricky Stanicky and crime thriller Sleeping Dogs, starring Russell Crowe and Karen Gillan.
Joe Brinkmann, VicScreen’s head of incentives and production support, runs through Victoria’s USPs, which range from a world-class screen ecosystem through competitive grants to spectacular — and spectacularly diverse — locations that can morph into just about anywhere in the world. “Victoria’s capital, Melbourne, has doubled for a huge list of locations, from Boston to New York, Paris, Baltimore, Turkey, Dubai and Colombia,” Brinkmann says, noting that Melbourne is currently standing in for Rhode Island in Ricky Stanicky and a US east-coast university town in Sleeping Dogs. “We have a great mix of heritage, modern, art deco and contemporary streetscapes that can be transformed into any location,” he says. “Melbourne was even transformed into the bustling city of Mumbai for Shantaram. And just a short drive from the city, we also have beaches, forests, mountains, coastal villages...”
Another plus point is that Melbourne is Australia’s major events capital — a feature that came in handy during the filming of Robbie William’s biopic Better Man, which was shot live at the UK singer’s sold-out concert at Melbourne Rod Laver Arena last year. “Rod Laver is known for hosting the biggest names, from David Bowie to Taylor Swift,” Brinkmann adds. “It’s great to have venues like that in our back pocket to bring ambitious productions to life.”
Melbourne also boasts one of the largest sound stages in the Southern Hemisphere at Docklands Studios Melbourne, which is in the process of being fitted with a cutting-edge virtual-production infrastructure. The technology will include the largest permanent LED volumes in the world — high- tech digital screens that can display realistic background environments and visual effects. Brinkmann says these will transform Victoria into a “global screen destination” on a par with Los Angeles, New York, London and Vancouver.
In common with the rest of Australia, Victoria offers experienced crews, with international productions relying heavily on local skill and expertise. “A current example is that we have over 1,000 Victorians working on Ricky Stanicky,” Brinkmann says, adding that director Peter Farrelly is on record as saying that the production’s Victorian crew is “as good as he’s ever had anywhere in the world”.
Farrelly’s assessment of Australian crews could as easily be applied to the country’s locations, incentives, studios, post-productions facilities and screen talent, all of which rank among the best in the world. Ron Howard, who filmed Thirteen Lives, his gripping retelling of the 2018 Thai caves rescue mission, on Queensland’s Gold Coast, put it another way: in Australia, he said, “You can just get a lot of good work done”